Samantha Bee knows exactly what she’s doing.
Bee kicked off her show, wisely, by addressing the obvious, staging a fake press conference and answering such lady-themed questions as “Is it hard breaking into the boys club?” and “What’s it like to be a female woman?”
Her answer to everything: Using magic. Smash cut to a creepy, horror-movie style witch coven, with Bee at the center of the Satanic circle. “It’s true. We’re all witches,” she says. “Any other questions?”
Oh, hell yes. Let’s do this.
Bee knows what the expectations are; she knows what standards she wants to uphold and what institutional garbage she wants to dismantle. She doesn’t wonder how to address the stunning lack of diversity in comedy writers’ rooms; she just hires a writing staff with an equal number of men and women, 25 percent of whom are people of color. She knows she is breaking ground as the first woman to helm a late-night satirical news show. She knows when to wink at that and when to move past it, when to shine a spotlight on her difference and when to demand she is no different, fundamentally, from any of her peers. And she knows how to do it all while being the funniest person in the room.
Bee has chosen an excellent, game-on theme song (Peaches’ “Boys Wanna Be Her”) and credits, as everyone from the Statue of Liberty to Jesus Christ beckons her onto the stage. It fits the narrative of Bee, who was the longest-running correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — once its only female correspondent — and thought by many to be his likely successor: Her ascent to comedy-news anchor is inevitable, overdue, welcome. This is not a self-effacing, aww-shucks-little-old-me kind of woman. This is a woman who, seeing her blatant exclusion from a Vanity Fair cover on “all the titans of late night television” responded to the snub by tweeting what she called a “BETTER” version: One with her smack in the middle, just about eclipsing Jimmy Kimmel, as a muscular, tattooed centaur with laser beams shooting out of her eyes.
Thanks to the election, Bee has no shortage of material. (Then again, this bounty of absurdity that is the election has empowered, say, Trevor Noah, to consistently produce must-see TV.) Bee sets the tone: Liberal in her basic politics — a pro-choice, outspoken feminist — but equal-opportunity in her astute, hilarious mockery.
She rips Hillary “Hermione” Clinton for claiming she “never thought” she’d be asking Americans to vote for her to be president, Bernie Sanders for trying to get a word in during the debates like he’s asking a waitress to bring him the check, and both democratic hopefuls for “agreeing so tersely, I just had a flashback to the month before my parents admitted they were getting a divorce,” before charging into the Republican field, “a banquet of all-you-can-eat crazy.” The most brutal joke of the night might have just been footage of Ted Cruz’s daughter refusing to hug him.
Bee took a break from the national stage to tear into Mitch Holmes, the Kansas state senator who wrote a dress code for the capital targeted only at women. (These weak men “can’t hear female testimony over the sound of their own boners popping.”) This is where Bee really shines: Thoroughly reported humor, fueled by genuine outrage. She rapid-fire reads through the bullet points of what Holmes has accomplished in office, coming to the conclusion that his has been “an entire legislative career spent controlling women and congratulating men who exclude them.”
Her last segment was a fake German film about Jeb “Please Clap” Bush, a strange, funny idea that is maybe a bit longer than it should be, but points for leaning into something so offbeat and unusual in a premiere.
Her set is sparse — the most notable feature is what it lacks: a desk — and Bee stood for the duration of her debut. It’s hard to tell if the standing-all-night concept will seem less odd with time or if everyone who hosts a show like this has a desk for a reason. The structure does give you the feeling that she isn’t totally settled there, that she could bolt from the room at any moment, like a party guest who refuses to nestle into the couch because their eye is already on the door.
TBS didn’t exactly highlight the fact that Bee’s half-hour show will only air once a week, giving her the least amount of late night real estate in the game, after John Oliver. His Last Week Tonight gets the same half hour block without commercials, courtesy of HBO. Beyond that, it’s guys like Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central with 22-odd-minutes a night, four nights a week, and all the other gents in suits jockeying for Johnny Carson’s old (cough possibly irrelevant now ahem) throne, with hour-long blocks five nights a week. This is worth bringing up not as a knock to what Bee is up to — considering the stunning ascent of Oliver, prizing quality at the expense of quality is a savvy move on Bee’s part — but to clarify that, if it feels like, even with Bee’s presence, late night is still 100 percent male, that’s because, six nights a week, it is.
But Bee doesn’t seem too concerned about getting noticed. She seems absolutely ecstatic to be here, on her own stage, on her own terms. All this, as she says, “and during an election year? Thank you to the sweet baby Jesus.” Amen, sister.